At least seven civilians were killed and nearly two dozens injured when government forces fired at anti-India protesters in disputed Kashmir following a gunbattle that left three rebels and a soldier dead on Saturday, police and residents said.
Indian troops surrounded a village in the southern Pulwama area on a tip that militants were hiding there, police said. As the soldiers began a search operation, militants jumped out of a civilian home and took position in a vast apple orchard while firing at soldiers and counterinsurgency police, said Muneer Ahmed Khan, a top police officer. Three rebels and a soldier were killed in the exchange of gunfire while one soldier was also wounded, he said.
The gunbattle sparked protests with hundreds of people marching near the site in solidarity with the rebels while chanting pro-militant slogans and seeking an end to Indian rule over the Himalayan region. The protesters threw stones at troops to help the militants escape while government forces fired bullets, shotgun pellets and tear gas to stop them, killing seven and injuring at least 22 others.
Police officer Khan said large crowds came from multiple directions while attacking security deployments in the area.
Residents accused troops of directly spraying gunfire into the crowds.
"They (Indian troops) fired at us as if they were practicing their guns," said Shabir Ahmed, a local resident who accompanied some injured taken to a hospital in Srinagar, the region's main city.
Two police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said the civilians died in the anti-India protests. However, residents said at least two civilians, including a teenage boy, were killed away from the gunbattle site.
Soldiers in an armored vehicle fired at a small group of civilians away from the site of the battle, and as the vehicle jammed on a roadside, the troops fatally shot one of them, said local resident Ubaid Ahmed.
In recent years, mainly young Kashmiris have displayed open solidarity with the rebels and sought to protect them by engaging troops in street clashes during India's counterinsurgency operations despite repeated warnings from the Indian authorities.
India and Pakistan each claim the divided territory of Kashmir in its entirety. Most Kashmiris support the rebel cause that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, a charge Pakistan denies. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.